Magic Johnson

Betsey Johnson's 30-year career has been one wild ride. Here, she looks back and forward.

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WWD Milestones issue 07/22/2008

It’s 12 o’clock on a sweltering New York City summer day — July 3, in fact — and Betsey Johnson, like everyone in the city, is considering her holiday weekend getaway plans. “Well, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I think, unless I hear from my man lover…,” said Johnson at the very top of the interview, trailing off as she alludes to the fact that, at age 65, life is no less fun than it was when she started her collection 30 years ago.

This story first appeared in the July 22, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As Johnson’s candid comment implies, she’s not exactly the grandmother next door. With her platinum Raggedy Ann-style extensions and pixielike body, today swathed in purple Alexander McQueen harem pants, a turquoise tank, purple shirt and a sparkly shrug, Johnson has the spunk of a twentysomething. She’s obviously still capable of turning heads. As for her frisky friend, he’ll remain nameless. “Oh, I can’t say,” she demurred, turning the conversation back to its intended subject: herself.

Fashion’s all-time good-time girl is celebrating her label’s big 3-0, proof to anyone who’s dismissed her as a silly eccentric — “or kooky and funky,” added Johnson, anticipating the adjectives that inevitably appear alongside her name — of her staying power. It’s as good an occasion as any to wax nostalgic about her career. But, for the moment, Johnson’s more intent on discussing the future. As she put it: “We are at the slam dunk, great part of reinventing this company” — a seemingly odd statement, particularly in light of the fact that, for the past three decades, Johnson has made big business (more than 70 stores worldwide, 800 wholesale accounts and 10 licensees) out of staying true to her ultraspecifi c style. “We did establish a look, a feel, a customer, a real vibe,” said Johnson, considering her rock-doll oeuvre. “It was a vibe that was as much edgy as it was pretty.”

Tulle tutus, poufy petticoats, leopard spots and hearts — Johnson has come to own that genre of sweet tart, particularly at prom time. And, as it turns out, she’s a little sick of all the sugar. “You grow up a little and you sell more, so things get watered down a bit, and things get focused,” she said, noting that she started to feel disconnected from the image her bestsellers present about two years ago. “I was seeing that we were becoming a date dress company. A very fixed price range, fixed look. I think my most recognizable stuff, my tutu prom dresses and sheath dresses, have become so successful that they just became the whole product.”

Time for change. Johnson’s new goal is getting back to her roots, which weren’t in ruffles, but sportswear. “I want a five-pocket jean. I’m a T-shirt and jeans, sloppy, show-skin type,” she said of her renewed vision. “And I’m vintage-inspired like crazy.”

Said retro kick began with Johnson’s fall 2008 runway show. “I wasn’t feeling the collection,” she said. “I wasn’t feeling the show, and yet, there’s this 30-year anniversary looming, and I thought, what am I going to do? We were in this dress-house lock.”

If this all sounds a little negative for fashion’s perpetual cheerleader, she hasn’t lost her effervescent spirit. Johnson mustered her ‘we can do it’ approach for the show’s finale, sending out a lineup of vintage looks that spanned her entire career, from early Sixties jumpsuits to motorcycle jackets to Eighties skull-and-crossbone sweaters. The vintage parade was meant as a statement of her philosophy. She said the press and retailer response validated her instincts.

“They started seeing the dress line inventory like a big lead cloud,” said Johnson. “Now, the partners are saying, ‘Where’s the sportswear?’ and it’s all coming down to this history of mine and the essence of me. Thank god.”

She has since been obsessively collecting her early work, scouring eBay and buying her original designs, many of which will be remade for the Betsey Johnson Vintage Collection she plans to slowly introduce for fall.

Indeed, fashion and otherwise, Betsey’s history is worth repeating. Like her Seventh Avenue headquarters, a punk princess palace painted bright pink, black and yellow with animal print and rosebud accents, Johnson’s career has been colorful from Day One. She grew up in suburban Connecticut, obsessed with dance — the costumes, the theatrics and the performance value, all obvious influences on her clothes and exuberant runway presentations — and still names her childhood dance teacher, a former Broadway girl, as one of her biggest inspirations.

Betsey didn’t make it to Broadway, but she found a different route to New York. After studying art at Syracuse University, Johnson won a contest that landed her a trip to London, where she was introduced to Sixties superstars Mary Quant, Biba and Penelope Tree, as well as a job guest-editing at Mademoiselle. While there, Johnson started a side business selling sweaters she designed, and managed to impress the magazine’s editor, Betsy Blackwell, with her illustrations. Connections were made and Johnson’s freelance career was on a roll.

By the time British retailer Paul Young tapped Betsey to design for his Paraphernalia boutique, where her English/hippie-inspired clothes (she considers her first Paraphernalia collection from 1965 her finest work) hung beside Quant’s, she was fully immersed in New York’s quintessential Sixties hipster scene. She hung at Max’s Kansas City, lived at the Chelsea Hotel, briefly married John Cale of the Velvet Underground and palled around with Andy Warhol and Edie Sedgwick, even designing the costumes for “Ciao! Manhattan.”

“I also used to hang out with Janis Joplin in Chelsea, in the bar,” she said, acknowledging how surreal it seems now. “I mean, that was big. Andy Warhol just existing! Just the fact that there was Andy was huge.”

While her peers were infamous for their sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle, Johnson is adamant that she didn’t play as hard as they did. “People thought I was a little druggie,” she said. “I was at work every day in the Paraphernalia cut-and-sew rooms where I made all my patterns and sewed my samples, went to the factories, saw that they were executed. I was at work every day at 8:30 and didn’t leave before 8 or 9 at night. Where was there room to take drugs?”

Even if she got an unfairly bad rep, Johnson considers that period the height of her creative experience. “My favorite time of my life, and nothing holds a candle to it,” said Johnson. “The Sixties were the big new time and the last new time for fashion. I was one of those very lucky few to be among that very Uptown/Downtown scene of collaboration between artists, musicians, models, photographers. I was only, like, 21 or 22, but it was the last time I ever felt a sense of collaboration and panic like that.”

In 1969 she ventured into retail, opening the Betsey Bunki Nini boutique before taking a job with Alvin Duskin in San Francisco and adopting a bicoastal lifestyle.

With the Seventies came new opportunities. At first things were good. Johnson took creative control of the junior collection, Alley Cat, where she worked the Seventies bohemian-rock look to the hilt. The result: a Coty Award in 1972, which she collected alongside fellow winners Elsa Perretti and Halston. But on the heels of all the acclaim came change. Johnson’s rock ’n’ roll looks were out and a new more reserved, sophisticated style was in. Discouraged, she took a break and focused on freelance and her daughter, Lulu, until the tides turned back in her favor.

In 1978, Johnson found three things she needed to get back in the game: confidence, cash and her longtime business partner, Chantal Bacon. “I fought the working woman’s wardrobe in the Seventies,” said Johnson of her motivation to go out on her own. “I went into business the year that the working woman’s wardrobe and shoulder pads were really in and really powerful, but my inspiration was Danskin leotards. They won, like, a unique design award and that was hope for me. Then came Jane Fonda running down the street. It was like, ‘Wooo! Hallelujah!’”

Johnson asked Bacon — the two had met at a company where Johnson designed children’s wear and through the glam-rock music scene — if she was up for a challenge: building a company from the ground up. “I had no business experience,” recalled Bacon. “All I knew was that we both had the same vision and I really liked what she did and we just had the same kind of energy.”

The duo pooled money from bank and family loans and some all-but-forgotten stock Johnson had in Bayer Aspirin. “My friends made me invest it,” said Johnson. “Six years later, my auntie says, ‘Did you hear about that such-and-such stock and what it’s doing?’ and that was my stock. There was the $60,000. I mean, absolute fluky.”

They launched the Betsey Johnson collection on Aug. 10, 1978, Johnson’s birthday. She closed the show with a cartwheel, now her signature bow. Together, they faced the next three decades “blinded by the light,” as Johnson said, with little more than endless enthusiasm for what they do. Along the way, Johnson’s work has attracted an all-star list of style-setting celebrity shoppers, Joan Jett, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper and Amy Winehouse among them, as well as an impressive collection of accolades, including the CFDA’s 1999 Timeless Talent Award.

“That was the best acknowledgement,” she said, adding that the Lifetime Achievement Award is still on her to-do list.

“We have been like waves on the ocean over 30 years,” said Johnson, who faced a triumphant battle with breast cancer in 2000. “We were up and down and up and down. We never had that back support pocket of LVMH or Puritan Fashions. We never had heavy-duty Hilfiger back pockets or Claiborne. We were a privately owned little company, and we were affected by everything. We’d win and lose and win and after a while, you just get tired of winning and losing. But we didn’t want to give it all away and throw it down the tubes.”

Last year, Johnson and Bacon sold a majority stake to Cambridge-based equity group Castanea Partners. For the first time in 30 years, Johnson and Bacon aren’t doing everything on their own and they couldn’t be happier about it.

“We had both worked long enough that we wanted to get help and support for the company so it could continue, because we are ready to slowly back off,” said Johnson.

Castanea comes equipped with a growth strategy that includes making an international push and addressing the variety, in terms of merchandise and price range, that Johnson’s been gunning for. “It’s going to be full-tilt sportswear,” said Johnson, ticking off her wish list. “Dress, casual, jeans, T-shirts, day dresses, weekend clothes, date dresses, cocktail dresses and over-the-top prom, bar mitzvah and occasion dresses. There’ll be some over-the-top ballgowns at $2,000 to $4,000.”

Big talk for someone who just put the idea of stepping back on the table. Still, Johnson balks at the idea of full retirement. “Never,” she said. “Starting October, I’m going to come in Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and it’s going to be crackin’.”

The rest of the week, she’ll be enjoying the fruits of her labor. Castanea’s cash injection has turned the perennial downtown chick into an uptown girl. Last spring, Johnson bought two apartments, one for her and one for her daughter and granddaughter, on Madison Avenue, where she can often be found shopping.

“I do really enjoy Krizia with Valentino thrown in and Gaultier and Rykiel and a Barneys spree,” she said, adding that she recently dropped close to $8,000 at Alexander McQueen. “I just can’t walk three blocks without spending serious money.”

Does she feel like a sellout? Hardly. “I really feel very successful to be able to live up there and shop that street,” said Johnson. “It keeps me much more informed about fashion, and supportive. The uptown stores I like to go to really are a designer’s life and dream of what they love.”

In another move toward this newfound maturity, Johnson put Betseyville, her Mexican Riviera hotel/hacienda, up for sale. Too much work and she’s feeling Morocco more than Mexico these days, anyway.

When asked if she has any regrets, only one came to mind: “I wish I didn’t stay so long in my last marriage,”she said. “In my work, it seemed at the end of the day that everything was meant to be when it was because that’s the way it was.”

Now Johnson is embracing change, including what she considers the biggest factor: an increasingly smaller world. “Everything is global. Everybody is the same in every city,” she said. “I had a funny interview the other day about how the Japanese customer is different. Nobody’s different anymore. Everybody goes online, everybody travels, everybody is kind of the same.”

If anything, it has recharged her mission, giving her all the more reason to stick to her stylistic guns. “I love that television has splattered me all over the place,” said Johnson with her signature unbridled excitement. “I love the support and exposure I’ve had. I have girls yelling, ‘Go Betsey!’ or — what do they yell at me? — ‘You’re the bomb.’ To me, that means I really stand for something.

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